THE BLOG
08/19/2014 02:22 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

A Grandmother on 'Uppity Women', Universal Suffrage and Protecting the Vote

Women weren't "given" the right to vote.
We fought and died for it.

Ninety-four years ago, August 18, 1920, Tennessee, the last state required to approve it, ratified the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits United States citizens from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. The evenly split vote would have failed when a young State Senator, Harry Burn, son of Phoebe Ensminger Burn, received a note that read in part: "Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt."

He hastily changed his vote to aye. In explaining it the next day, he explained: "I know that a mother's advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.'"

In that moment, due to an "uppity" woman who raised a thoughtful son, American women gained the right to vote.

Since the founding of our nation, for all of us except white male gentry, achieving the near universal suffrage, the meaningful inclusion in "We the People," the one-person one-vote of it, that this country celebrates but does not always practice, has been an on-going struggle.

Women weren't "given" the right to vote; that took the determination over many years of a lot of "uppity" women and thoughtful men. Neither were African-Americans, Native Americans or Asian-Americans just "given" that right. This is a summer for marking, remembering and, importantly, for protecting.

Our gains have been, continue to be, achieved step by often-painful step. For many of us, the bloody violence and political struggles to produce the major milestones of a half-century ago -- The March on Washington, August 28, 1963, The Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964, The Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965 -- are vivid memories. We wrote letters, demonstrated, marched, were hosed, jailed, even killed, to achieve these rights.

As momentous as those half-century ago events are, singly and collectively, they followed in the United States' larger civil and voting rights continuum. The 166th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was this past July 19-20. For the first time on this continent, women -- and men -- met to take the first steps toward gaining social, civil and moral rights for women. We celebrate the formidably named leaders: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott. Surprisingly, they debated fiercely whether women's right to vote should be included in their closing document. Many, including Lucreta Mott, urged removing them. However, Frederick Douglass, who also attended, argued eloquently for including the suffrage resolution, which was retained. Their state-by-state approach to achieve this succeeded in some western states and ultimately in New York.

The constitutional amendment, however, took 72 more years. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted the amendment and first introduced it unsuccessfully in 1878. Then, starting in 1916, suffragist Alice Paul, a determined Quaker suffused with teachings of equality and non-violence, and her well-connected women friends began a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience in Washington to force the issue on President Wilson and a reluctant Democratic party. Over the next three years, news that they were hit by crowds, abused by the police, jailed, beaten to unconsciousness, went on hunger strikes and force-fed struck the conscience of the nation. In 1919, after being called into special session to address the issue, Congress passed the amendment and submitted it to the states for ratification. It became law within a year.

In exercising a right, we make it real. We learn by example the empowerment of debating, of disagreeing, of making our choice, of casting our ballot, of accepting the result, even when we lose. In 1920, my mother's mother was already voting age. She voted until almost the end of her life, canceling her husband's vote the whole time. I inhaled my responsibility to participate in elections sitting on her porch, listening while the adults talked politics.

My mother voted as soon as she was old enough. She told her mother she was going to vote for Norman Thomas. Her mother responded: "That's fine, Louise. But let's just not tell your Father." When Mother was 71, she and her friends, wearing suffragist white, marched in the parade down Constitution Ave celebrating the 60th anniversary of women's suffrage.

In 1957, when I could register to vote, Virginia was in the middle of Massive Resistance -- an effort to overturn the effects of Brown vs. the Board of Education and the growing effort to register Negros (as we said then) to vote. I was handed a blank piece of paper and instructed to provide the necessary information, which I knew only because a family friend, a voting registrar, had told me what was required. The blank paper practice was soon overturned, but my registration is still valid.

Our daughter started working elections with her brothers as a kid when a neighbor enlisted them to pass out flyers. She says she is the only true independent in the family. But when I heard she had voted for Oliver North, I almost stopped asking her to dinner. She has since done a full 180, and is again handing out flyers, this time outside polls, supporting more progressive candidates.

Two years ago, my granddaughter, who had just begun voting, texted she had cast her vote against the North Carolina constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. I welcomed her to the legion of those of us who lose while voting for what's right.

Most of the past 30 years, I have been a precinct-level Virginia election official, insuring the sanctity of the process, with a ringside seat on the diversity of proud citizens exercising their rights -- first time voters, new Americans, the wouldn't-miss-reliables, the parents with children they want to learn early that responsible citizens vote.

But I keep seeing a particular voter in my mind's eye: Small. Stooped. Bright eyes in a crinkled tobacco-leaf face. Sunday-go-meeting -- well, Tuesday-go-to-vote -- dress and hat. Leaning on her grandson. Moving slowly across the room. Stating her name for the election officer. Entering the booth to cast her ballot. As the Chief Election Officer, I offered: "We could have brought the ballot to you in the car."

"No, thank you, M'am. I come vote under my own steam." Satisfied smile. Still supported by her grandson. Walking out just as slowly. Proudly wearing her "I Voted" sticker.

This determined elderly lady epitomizes the dignified majesty of voting at the heart of the United States' elective democracy. We diminish that at our national peril.

Yet, while specific suffrage has been legalized nationally, our 50 states and over 10,000 jurisdictions organize and administer elections, which are not nationally standardized. Consequently, through a succession of new requirements enacted in many states, north and south, some emboldened by the Supreme Court's gutting a critical part of the Voting Rights Act, we are witnessing active efforts to restrict the franchise by reducing early voting hours and toughing voter ID rules.

Preventing voter fraud is the stated reason. Yet, speaking as someone who has witnessed fraud while monitoring elections in places like the Philippines, and with years of hands-on experience administering elections at the precinct level: Hooey. Absentee ballots, perhaps. But in-person? Deminimus. To this grandmother, and to others, there is more than a whiff of intentionally keeping folks you don't want from voting, presuming that makes winning more certain.

This month, Virginia snuck under the radar to join the growing ranks of states effectively disenfranchising voters, particularly the young and minorities. On the surface, Virginia's new ID requirements, while disallowing previously acceptable non-picture IDs like voter registration cards and gas bills, accept a specified range of state and federally issued picture IDs -- the sort that many of us show daily to enter offices and do business. So, no problem? However, registered voters will be prohibited from casting a regular ballot if their photo IDs expired more than a year ago. And by many estimates at least 200,000 active Virginia voters do not even have a driver's license. Many may not have other forms of ID the state considers valid for voting either.

Virginia will issue a free photo voter ID. But they are not readily come by. Free IDs are only issued at a registrar's office, often miles away, inaccessible by public transportation and only open during the hours many people must work. And applicants must present documents many may not have. This is just one state. Even more draconian variations of this law are being enacted elsewhere -- in a country that counts voting as the bedrock of democracy.

So, "uppity" citizens, time to act.

Vote. Each one does make a difference. Make sure, like my grandmother did, that your vote cancels out a friend's you might disagree with politically.

Tell your state representatives you object to having anyone's right to vote limited. Write letters. Call offices. Work to vote recalcitrant representatives out. Imagine what it would be like if your vote were taken away procedurally.

Remember, we weren't "given" the right to vote. We stand on the shoulders of the many uppity women and men -- Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hammer -- and many others who struggled so we might. We must do the same for those who follow us.

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